“We Preach Christ Crucified”

(1 Corinthians 1:22-25 – Lent 3 – March 7, 2021)

1 Corinthians 1:22-25 – 22For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; 23but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, 24but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Dear Redeemed in Christ, who was crucified for us:

God’s ways do not always appear powerful or wise to men, but God will have the last word on that. The Philistines learned this lesson the day David defeated their champion, Goliath. Goliath was a well-armed giant. David was an unarmed youth, except for a little slingshot. How weak, how foolish David appeared! As he came forward, Goliath mocked him. By his gods he swore he would make mincemeat out of the boy and feed him to the wild animals. One little stone in David’s sling whirled around and around. It glided through the air and sunk into the Philistine’s forehead. The giant fell face down on the ground. In the name of the Lord, David triumphed over the enemy (1 Samuel 17:40-50).

God’s ways do not always look powerful or wise. It was true again when David’s greater Son and Lord, Jesus Christ, came to fight our spiritual enemies. In the eyes of men, He looked weak and foolish, but God has the last word on that. By His cross, Jesus has won our salvation; by His cross, He has defeated the power of sin, Satan, and death. That is why in our text Paul declares: “We Preach Christ Crucified”: 1) The power of God, and 2) The wisdom of God.

1) The power of God

Paul describes two sets of people who take offense at the message of the Cross. First he says: “Jews request a sign.” In the Scriptures, God had told the Jews their Messiah would come with miraculous signs. These would prove that He was the Anointed One of God. When Jesus came, He fulfilled the promises. Among His many miraculous signs, we think of His healings and even raising people from the dead. But many Jews still did not believe. They were not looking for such signs of grace and mercy. They were looking for signs of power in the heavens above and on the earth below, to show a Messiah equipped to rule as their king. They were looking for signs of judgment, to show a Messiah who would conquer Israel’s enemies. They wanted to see Him establish His throne on earth in a glorified kingdom of Israel.

But Jesus did not show such signs of power. He lived in poverty and humility, with no appearance of majesty. He even disagreed with Israel’s established religious leaders. In our Gospel lesson, they challenge Jesus: “What sign do You show to us, since You do these things?” Since they had not believed the other signs, Jesus gave them just one more. After they destroyed His body on the cross, He would raise it up again (John 2:18-21). But to them, His crucifixion would be one more proof that He was a fake. As He hung on the cross in agony and death, He did not look like a Messiah, powerful to bring salvation from their enemies. So to them, “Christ crucified” was “a stumbling block.” In their eyes, He failed the test of powerful signs.

Paul is not only speaking of the Jews. Many people look for signs of power before they will believe. Many people want Christ to be a powerful liberator in this world. We hear it in Liberation Theology and the Social Gospel, where Christ is portrayed as being all about liberating oppressed people from world powers and social inequalities. They insist that Christ must be a power for civil rights in this world, a power to end suffering and poverty. Others look for signs of power in a Prosperity Gospel, which promises Christ wants to make you prosperous and even rich in this life. Others look for powerful signs of the Spirit, in things like speaking in tongues and miraculous healings. Many look for proof of God’s favor in outward signs, in good works they do to get right with Him. It all seems to make sense. If I feel that I am living an improved life in this world, and becoming a better person, it seems like proof that I am saved.

Are we tempted to look for signs of power, apart from Christ crucified? Do we at times treat Christ’s cross as if it were not enough to convince us of our salvation? Maybe we wonder: “Why doesn’t Jesus liberate me from my day-to-day troubles? If I don’t feel His power here and now, how can I know I’m in God’s favor? Why doesn’t He give me spiritual signs like others claim? Why can’t I be as holy as others? Is my faith in the cross of Christ not sufficient?” How easily our focus is turned from the cross of Christ, to look for more convincing signs of our salvation.

Is there any real danger here? Does it really make any difference where our emphasis lies, so long as we call ourselves Christians? Yes, it does. When people take their eyes off the cross of Christ and look to other signs of salvation, Christ becomes “a stumbling block.” It is not like when you stumble over a crack in a sidewalk and skin your knee. It is like stumbling over the edge of a cliff and falling into death. When we are tempted to turn our focus away from Christ crucified for proof of salvation, Satan knows there is deadly destruction ahead.

So Paul says: “We preach Christ crucified.” God reminds us how He has powerfully saved us in the seemingly weak cross of Christ. There, God has liberated us from our most oppressive enemies. As sinners, our condition was desperate. We were spiritually dead, separated from God by sin. We were caught under Satan’s power, doomed to everlasting death and destruction. We could never have saved ourselves by our own power or goodness. No signs of power in the heavens above or on the earth below could have save us from destruction on Judgment Day.

But God gave His sign of grace and mercy in the cross of Christ. He sent His greater David forward to fight our Goliath for us. What Jesus did on the cross looked weak to men. They mocked Him and rejected Him. But as Paul says: “the weakness of God is stronger than men.” God placed all our sins on His Son. When Jesus had suffered all our punishment He cried out: “It is finished!” (John 19:30). He was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification” (Romans 4:25). God’s ways do not always look powerful to men, but God has the last word on that. In Jesus’ resurrection, He has declared our worst enemies fallen. We are freed from sin’s condemnation, freed from the power of death and the devil. We praise “Christ crucified… the power of God” for our salvation and eternal life!

2) The wisdom of God

Paul describes a second set of people who take offense at the message of the cross. He says: “Greeks seek after wisdom.” The Greeks were of a different background than the Jews. Living apart from God’s revealed Scripture, they depended on their own human reason to find answers to life’s questions. Whatever they thought about man’s existence, the universe, divine powers, an afterlife – all of it had to pass through the filter of human wisdom before they would believe it.

The Greeks had a very high regard for their philosophers and scientists. Men like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were nearly deified for their works. Yet, even the most intelligent of them could not agree on the truth. Much of what the philosophers determined to be truth at one time, was replaced by a later idea… which in turn was replaced by another.

But there was one thing they all agreed on – the message of “Christ crucified” was “foolishness.” We are reminded of the time when Paul was in Athens. He stood up in the Areopagus, where the Greek philosophers liked to sit around and discuss the latest ideas. They wanted to hear Paul’s ideas, for a while. But when Paul spoke about Jesus dying on a cross, and then rising from the dead, they mocked him (Acts 17). How could it make any sense to trust in a man crucified on a cross, put to death like a criminal, to give them life? In their experience, people did not rise from the dead. To their human reason, it all sounded foolish.

Paul is not only speaking of the Greeks. Many people put human wisdom over God’s Word of truth. They demand scientific proof before they will believe. If man cannot prove miracles happen, they must not happen. Even teachers under the Christian name mix this worldview with their theology. They take a Historical Critical view of Scripture that says: “The Bible is a collection of man’s writings, like other ancient writings. It may have God’s truth mixed in, but we must sort out what is truth for our time.” They reject what sounds foolish – the miracle of the Virgin birth, the Resurrection of Christ, etc. They omit parts of the Bible that talk about sin and punishment, and the need of blood atonement for sin. It does not mix with modern ideas of psychology and self-esteem and the basic goodness of mankind. The message of the cross is foolishness to them.

Apart from the truth of God’s Word, what are the false teachers and philosophers of our day left with? No more than the Greeks of old. What is accepted as truth today may later be replaced by another “truth” relative to its time. Finally, it ends in today’s Post-Modern version of that question Pilate asked Jesus: “What is truth?” (John 18:30). Man’s wisdom brings us in one big circle, empty of any certainty of salvation.

But there is one enduring opinion among men, in matters of salvation. This opinion has been engrained in sinful man through all time. When it comes to the question of why a person should expect God’s favor, and why a person should expect to make it to heaven, the answer does not vary all that much. Conventional human wisdom says basically: “If you want to get right with God, it will depend on you doing your part – your goodness, your efforts, your worthiness.”

But this is impossible. In our fallen condition, we were dead in our trespasses and sins, completely unable to please God (Ephesians 2:1-3; Romans 8:7-8). A dead man cannot raise himself up by his own reason or strength, or anything good in himself. The message of the cross tells us that only God can raise us up through the death of His Son on the cross. To those who look for wisdom apart from God’s revelation, the crucified Christ sounds like a foolish idea.

The most impressive arguments by human reason could never convince anyone to believe. As Scripture says: “The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). The only one who can change the human heart is the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit works faith in the heart through the Gospel. Therefore Paul says in Romans 1:16: I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.”

The Gospel shows us God’s infinite power and wisdom at work for our good in the cross. Not even the most brilliant minds among men could have conceived of God’s plan of salvation. Who would have thought, much less dared to ask God, to send His own Son to die a death in our place that would win our eternal life? But “the foolishness of God is wiser than men.”

In the cross we see God’s infinite love at work, serving our best interests. Even as sinners mocked His Son as weak and foolish, He went to the cross to pay for our salvation from sin. Through His death, He gave us life. It is like the love parents show as they go on doing what is best for a strong-willed child, even as he sneers and thinks they are foolish. But later on, that child may come to appreciate deeply what his parents have done for him. Now that God’s Spirit has called us to faith in Christ, and made us His children, we can appreciate what great things He has done for us. We praise “Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God – and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30).

In contrast to the shifting sands of worldly power and wisdom, we declare with Paul: “We preach Christ crucified… the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Yes, the same old message of the cross! Why would we want to preach any other? As we sing in the hymn: “In the cross of Christ I glory, Tow’ring o’er the wrecks of time.” In His Gospel, God gives us true wisdom. No longer must we ask the big questions of life without solid answers: “Is there a God? What is He like? How can I know He loves me? What will happen when I die?” All those questions are answered in Christ crucified. We see God as our loving Savior. We see Him working in all things for our good. Even when we bear our cross in this world with Christ, even when we appear weak and foolish in the eyes of the world, we give thanks to God who has the final word on that! In His Word, He shows us the final resurrection, and the eternal joys we will share with our crucified and risen Savior in heaven. Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory in Christ!

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Amen.